Quai des Nations, 1900

by / Sunday, 01 May 2011 / Published in Uncategorized

QUAI DES NATIONS: I came across these photos from 1900 that show the precise location where I live today — on the very spot where the boldly white United States Pavilion stood in 1900. A century ago this stretch along the Seine was called, fittingly, “Quai des Nations” after the national pavilions erected for the Exposition. In an earlier time, I believe, it was known as the “Port du Gros Caillou”. Today it’s called the Quai d’Orsay (also the familiar name of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is a few yard yards down the road from my place).

In the black and white photo, note the American bald eagle surveying the Seine from atop the pavilion’s dome. The eagle is seen more clearly in the colour photo of the USA Pavilion taken from a different angle. I am also intrigued by the equestrian statue facing the Seine from under the arch (more clearly visible in the second photo). At first, I thought it might be a statue of George Washington — indeed, it looks similar to the Washington statue that today stands just across the Seine at place de l’Iéna. It’s also possible, perhaps even likely, that the equestrian statue in the USA pavilion was Lafayette. Interestingly, an equestrian statue of Lafayette today stands (after spending nearly a century at the Louvre) just across the Seine from where the USA Pavilion stood in 1900, near the Grand Palais and pont Alexandre III.

The presence of the United States on the coveted real estate along the Quai des Nations was evidently the subject of some diplomatic sensitivity in 1900. America was only a minor world power at the end of the 19th century, two decades before the First World War. For the high-profile Paris Exposition, only great powers were accorded pride of place on the Quai des Nations — and this hierarchy excluded the United States. It was only after a great deal of pressure from the United States that some space was found for the young American nation between the pavilions of two great global powers — Austria and Turkey. This account of the diplomatic kerfuffle is taken from an article on the Paris Exposition of 1900 by Arthur Chandler:

“When the Americans learned that the United States would not be allowed to place their pavilion on the Quai des Nations with the other first-rank powers, they launched an official protest — also to no immediate avail. The American Commission then began to apply strong direct and indirect pressure to the French government. Had the gracious hosts forgotten that ‘American trade returns exceed ten billions of francs — a total that is in excess of France and Germany together’? Ferdinand Peck, commissioner-general of the United States, wished to ‘establish the fact that the United States have so developed as to entitle them not only to an exalted place among the nations of the earth, but to the foremost rank of all in advanced civilization.’ The French, no doubt, politely demurred from this colossal presumption. But the United States pavilion was finally squeezed in between those of Austria and Turkey on the Quai des Nations, and every other country had to give up a small portion of their own space to make room for this upstart nation.”

A century later, the glory of Austria and the Ottoman empire has retreated into the annals of history — and all those glorious pavilions along the Quai des Nations have long vanished. But just across the Seine from the location where the USA pavilion stood in 1900, there is a proud avenue named after an American president: Woodrow Wilson.